They already took my left arm and I guess my right’s going next. Every
eyeball I see drips with pity. They know that it’s not stopping there. Pity and
shame, guilt – cursing themselves for calling it like they see it. Calling it
right: I’m a fuck-up redneck junkie piece of chicken shit whose vices and
stupidity doomed his poor old dad to torture. Watching his boy get cut to
pieces. They all know the facts. Infected bad. Probably going to die. And if I
don’t… what kind of living am I gonna to have left? Thirty-four and just last
week I had the rest of my life. So many days and nights and drinking with my
cousins and NASCAR with my dad. So much muddin’with the strung-out meth
girls I pull outta bars. Look like coon-eyed skeletons in stringy blond wigs,
but when they lay down in a bed in the cool white moonlight after a night
gettin’fixes and flying dirt roads and you got that girl’s tender lonely cunt fulland-a-half and they clutch at your bones with desperation for that mysterious
thing no drug ever got her twice, they look damn near like angels then. And
I’d just enjoy them and the bodies and the twisting tattoos and try not to think
about much else. The quiet wood-shack loser love – unbearable, shy. But
sometimes that moon would hit me too and I’d remember the flung-out love
story of my own life that’s never going to get the ending it deserves.
David Stark didn’t know what was going on. His arm had been hurting for
a while, figured it must be some kind of toxicity getting through the puncture
hole in his left forearm. As usual, he tried to deal with it himself – didn’t want
to get any authorities involved. He couldn’t stand paperwork or bureaucracy
or legal matters. Didn’t want to be forced into rehab again. So he took
Tylenol and he iced it and he tried keeping it warm but nothing worked. It
kept hurting more and swelling more and changing color.
He’d passed out on his arm, pressing his bony weight against it, trying to
stop the pain. His dad found him fourteen hours later. The arm was swollen
smooth and eggplant purple. Lifted him over his shoulder and rushed him to
the emergency room, no clue what it was. The doctors performed a guillotine
amputation immediately. They told Mr. Stark what was going on: wet
gangrene, blood infection, through his needle injection point. A toxicity
causing necrosis within the tissue. He’s been dying for days, from his fingers
and toes inward, blood unable to reach the extremities.
Mr. Stark looked at his son through the glass. Left arm removed just below
the shoulder. A burnished wound at the end of a useless nub. He’d wept for
his son all night. Thirty-four years old, and now the rest of his life without his
And then the doctor told him more: it wasn’t just his left arm. It spreads
through the blood, and it’s an advanced case. Mr. Stark asked what that
meant. And when the doctor told him, he fell to his knees. He cried until he
was numb, Dale Earnhardt #3 hat falling from his head and turning spotty with
It all had to go. Both arms, both legs. And even then, survival was a
longshot. His son was going to be cut to pieces, and then probably die. And if
he lived… Mr. Stark wasn’t sure if it was selfish to want his son to live if it
had to be like that.
The summer when David was eight years old, the mother of the girl across
the street died from a tainted batch of heroin. He didn’t really know the girl,
Liz. She was a nervous little thing who stayed inside or played with her toys
on the porch. But when he heard about it, and watched her through his
window, and watched her cry, he cried too. And David went upstairs and went
through his toys, all the Pokémon figures he’d gotten over the years. He
must’ve had a half-dozen different Pikachus, but he picked out the best one,
with the newest paint with no chips and the sweetest face. He watched Liz on
her porch, just sitting there on her knees, not playing with anything. He
waited until her grandma called her in for dinner, and then he went downstairs
and ran across the street and reached under the rail, and put his best Pikachu
there and ran back home. Liz watched it happen from her kitchen table.
Neither of them ever spoke about it, but when they’d pass each other at school,
she didn’t just look at her feet like she did with most. When they’d pass each
other at school, she’d look at David out of the corner of her eye and give the
sweetest little smile that he’d remember his whole life.
Dad’s holding my left hand when I wake up. I look at him. He’s looking at
our hands. His eyes are bloodshot and wrinkled, mustache trembling over his
lip. That same damn Dale Earnhardt #3 hat he’s been wearing since 1992. I
look at the nub that’s all’s left of my left arm. Move it a bit. Feel the nerves
that used to stretch into my fingertips, the ghost of them in the air.
“Dad,” he looks up at me and puts a hand on my cheek, “I’m sorry.”
He hugs me. Instinct brings my left shoulder joint around, but there’s
nothing to use, and my right arm doesn’t feel too good either. “I’m sorry, dad,
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m done, I’m done for good this time.” He’s squeezing
me and sobbing.
“Dad, what happened?”
He wipes his eyes. “Gangrene,” he chokes out. Nothing else.
“Is it… is it okay now?” I see his knuckles go white around my right hand
– oh shit, oh shit – but I don’t feel it.
He shakes his head and looks at the ground. “They… they needa’ take
more.” He removes one of his hands from mine and I look. From the wrist
down, everything is puffy and smooth like a balloon and purple. It’s dead.
The purple and swelling taper on up almost to my elbow.
I lay my head back and cry with him. The doctor comes into the room.
“David, Mr. Stark, we’re ready. The faster we get him in the better his
David left high school halfway through junior year when he got his license.
He was essentially failing anyway. His brother, Chad, had gotten a job at the
beer distributor even though he was only eighteen, wheeling kegs and cases
out for people and loading and unloading shipments. David never asked how
he did it, but Chad was managing to steal about fifty beers a week. Add that
to what they snuck out of their parents’ and grandparents’ liquor cabinets, the
boys were drinking just about every night. They threw parties on weekends
out at the mud pits where everyone would get drunk and race dirt bikes or
pick-up trucks and fuck their third-cousins. It was a hell of a time.
Over the next few years, their friends moved away or went to college.
Chad got arrested for a couple of D.U.I.s and got sent to jail. David worked at
Sheetz. Relatives stopped asking them what they were up to these days. An
ominous sign to some, when even loved ones recognize that you’re going
nowhere, but not an entirely unwelcome one, especially to someone like
David, whose aspirations never aimed above a good high and an a.m. onenighter and never further than the next day.
Wake up paralyzed. Still under. Can’t feel anything. Then I realize, no,
I’m not still under. Oh god, oh god, they took the legs too. I’m gone.
Everything. Both arms, both legs, gone. Below the shoulder, below the elbow,
and low-thigh. All I can do is cry.
I’m nothing. I’ll never walk. Never do anything on my own again. Never
have another redneck fuck-up kind of day, walking around the woods, drinking
beers and watching races at the track, hitting the bar, playing pool, maybe
even getting laid. Never being a dumb loser asshole who just does his thing
and in all that stupid shit and sin, sometimes just feeling the good in the world.
Just standing on the back porch in the morning with a glass of water and the
day and the trees spread out in front of me, with the sunrise breaking over the
pines and making everything go bright green technicolor and for a few
minutes just standing there with everything alright, no addictions, no failures,
no remembering what a piece of shit alcoholic junkie I am. Could I forget
about being this? Could I stand… well, whatever it would be, sit up there and
forget what a pitiful pathetic thing I am now? God, I’m like a broken toy. Let
the anesthesia take me again.
He’d had girlfriends, some serious, most not. Never had the kind of
beautiful love he’d vaguely pictured as a kid. The women he wound up with,
they loved him like they’d love a ratty mutt dog: letting him into their homes
out of pity until he shits on the rug, pathetic, disgusting, though not altogether
He just didn’t have what it takes to make a long-term relationship really
work. Didn’t have the jealousy or sense of ownership that glues a man to a
woman, didn’t have the ability to plan and prioritize that drives one towards
marriage and children and stability, didn’t have the diligence to stay clean and
employed, spent a lot of time just smoking a cigarette or drinking a beer or
sipping a Coca-Cola on his porch, without much inclination to do anything
else. It was understandably frustrating. He’d win a woman over at the bar –
he always had such nice blue eyes – then they’d have some fun together – he
was always generous with whatever drugs he happened to have – and then
he’d win their hearts in bed without meaning to – quiet and unconsciously
obsessive with his partner’s orgasm, resting his head on her breasts and
stroking his slender fingers inside her until she came, forgetting until the
moment of climax to mount and fuck. Some of the best moments of his life
were on that twin bed with the white sheets in the little wooden cabin above
his parents’ house and on his parents’ property that they let him live in most of
the time. Whatever his curses and his faults, he had a gift for loving a thing in
the moment of its occurrence, everyone involved, the whole immediate world,
lying there with some skinny drug-addict like him, arching her back with her
sharp nipple in his mouth, feeling her tighten around his fingers, watching her
eyes roll back into some private place in the cool steady moonlight, he loved
watching them let go and disappear.
But women, they straighten out with love. David just felt it and kept on
doing whatever he was doing. And it was never long before they realized that
David was just going to keep on being the same stringy poor absentminded
junkie with pretty eyes.
What is the missing ingredient? There must be something lacking in a
certain kind of man, the ones who feel no need and no desire to influence or
accrue or leave a legacy or fuck a woman out of their league for validation.
When he was twelve years old, a frustrated teacher asked David what he
dreamed of doing with his life. “What?” What do you dream of doing? He
shrugged and looked at his feet. “I don’t know,” he finally replied, “I like the
way things are.” Guess that’s enough. The one woman he clung to in his
heart, after his mother died, was Liz. He’d never dated her, never slept with
her, barely interacted with the girl at all, in fact. She moved away with her
grandma in middle-school. She moved back to Yeersha in her mid-twenties
with a baby and a fresh divorce. David was working at the diaper plant at the
time, stuck on night shift, and it was a year before they even saw each other at
the grocery store. Same shy smile. He didn’t know what to say. They walked
away from each other and kept on living, she re-married and re-divorced,
another nobody like David, but one with the confidence not only to talk to her
but to beat her senseless on a few occasions. She worked as a secretary all the
way out in Roscoe City, an hour commute each way. He eventually got fired
from the diaper plant, missed too many days passed out with that drip in his
arm. Worked for his dad painting houses when he could pull himself together.
And then, just the year before, Jodie Stark passed away. She was the kind
of woman the whole town knew. David and David Sr. were wrecked, and not
a single house in Yeersha was painted that autumn. But the day after the
funeral, when David walked out on the little porch of that little cabin to have a
morning cigarette, he saw that same Pikachu from twenty-five years earlier
sitting on the railing and damn near fell to pieces. My God, if that isn’t a
glimmer of gold in an ocean of shit.
David thought so too. The beauty of the thing was not lost on him. He
didn’t know what he should do, but he had the feeling that this one thing, this
one piece of perfect symmetry stretched over twenty-five years could be the
one thing he’d found in life really worth working for. He would go to her and
see. And on that day in late September with the summer warmth lingering
over the grieving Starks, David very nearly quit. The Pikachu in his hand and,
for the first time in a long time, a conviction in his heart, he was a hairsbreadth
away from saying no now and forever to the vices that had held him down and
kept him going for so long. David stood on the porch with the morning sun
shining on the wet grass and his dad’s home and almost took off running right
there into town to ask everyone where Liz Harlow lived and then find her and
hug her and tell her goddamnit we’re just a couple of Yeersha losers but if we
didn’t share something as beautiful as about the whole world ever sees just tell
me now and I’ll go but if you think so too I think we need to live up to it,
goddamnit, I’m going to live up to something for once and for all.
But he didn’t. He went back inside and put the Pikachu on the table and
started drinking and heating up a spoon. He really meant to go see her. Really
did. Just figured he’d give himself some time to grieve first. It got away from
Liz waited half-hopefully for a week or two, but then she let it go. For all
she knew, he didn’t remember anyway and wouldn’t know who it was from.
She’d knocked on the main house and David Sr. told her David lived in the
cabin up the hill, but he didn’t recognize her as the girl from across the street
all those years back. No reason to expect his son to.
It just eats you up inside picturing what that Christmas could have been
like. David and Liz and David Sr. and Liz’s son, all having a meal together
and exchanging gifts. David clean and happy, all of them happy, getting some
kind of family out of the wake of Jodie’s passing, with that Pikachu grinning
out over them from its spot above the fireplace. Instead, Liz and her kid went
to an old school-friend’s place to stay, her ex-husband stalking the house.
David Sr. visited his other son, Chad, in prison and came back to an empty
house, wondering if David Jr. would come down for dinner. And David lay
passed out in his truck on a mountaintop going numb and descending further
into his rabbit hole than ever before. It might have been that day that his fate
was sealed. About three months since Jodie had died, and he’d gone from a
lazy junkie to a compulsive one. A man who couldn’t bear to stop, and
couldn’t stand to think about what he might be throwing away.
My dad’s sobbing like I’ve never heard, not even when mom died.
Watching his son get cut to pieces. “Mr. Stark,” the Doctor, “from our tests it
looks like we have the infection removed. His antibiotics are working well,
and we’re not seeing any more necrosis. That definitely doesn’t mean we’re
out of the woods yet: the shock of this magnitude of emergency surgery is
difficult to predict. We’re going to do the best we can for David. It’s going to
be rough for him when he comes to – I can’t even imagine being in his shoe…
being in his situation. He’ll need your love.”
I don’t want to open my eyes. I’m never going to see another person who
doesn’t look at me with pity. Shit, I pity myself, even though I don’t want to.
Crying – dad notices. I feel his shaking hand on my chest but still don’t want
to open my eyes.
“David,” he says, “Oh David, oh David.” He’s making me shake.
“Dad,” his trembling fingers wipe at my tears, “dad, I don’t want to look.”
Mr. Stark always wondered if he was too soft on his boys. He was a firm
believer in letting kids run around and have their fun, but it was only middle
school by the time he noticed booze missing from his cabinet. Chad was
twelve when he caught him smoking weed up in the cabin with a girl two
years older, and he knew that whatever Chad was doing, David was doing too.
Chad got sent to juvee at thirteen for stealing a car from a campsite down the
mountain. When David was twelve he caught him sneaking back into the
house at three in the morning stumbling drunk and slurring. And all he ever
did was try to talk to them, maybe take away their television. He couldn’t
stand to see anyone upset, especially his kids and his wife. Most of the time,
if he caught them doing something, Jodie would never find out. He never
knew what to say to the boys. Say he’s disappointed? Hell, he was just a
house painter in Yeersha, it wasn’t like they had much to live up to.
Jodie became the tyrant of the household after Chad was caught selling
meth at the drive-in. She’d scream at the boys and smack them with a wooden
spoon and chase them into their room, furious little thing. But when they got
out of school and moved out for a while, they were out of her reach. By the
time David moved back to the cabin over the house, she was already sick and
didn’t have the strength to do much. The thing was, all she had to do was cry.
David couldn’t stand to see anyone crying. If she’d have just let herself be
weak and showed it, he probably would have stopped.
Mr. Stark never shut the doors on his boys. He once halfheartedly ordered
David to move off the property when he found him passed out with the belt
around his arm, but when David didn’t leave after a couple days, he just
dropped it. He let David work for him painting even though he knew the
reason he missed so many shifts at the diaper plant. And sitting at the hospital
looking at what was left of his son, every beat of his poor old heart shook him
with the pain of knowing that it was the money he paid his boy that allowed
him to keep on buying the stuff. He sat and wept and wished he’d just beaten
David’s ass the first time he caught him drinking or smoking, whipped him
with a belt until he bled, kicked him out of the house and off his land, denied
him a job when he lost his old one, sucked it up and bore down on the kid like
the mean old bastard that David needed, and maybe by inflicting some pain
then he could have prevented what was happening. Mr. Stark apologized
silently for being such a weak father. Couldn’t bring himself to say it out
loud, not yet, not to his boy just now.
There’s gotta be something in this, some glimmer to take away, something
to make me fight, some reason to live, he wants to convince me, dad, I’m
already convinced. I’m convinced by you being here and I don’t want you to
be a shattered man again, so soon after you got your pieces put back together
enough to walk around and watch the races over at the track. And shit, I’m
convinced by all the things I never thought about missing, all the things I don’t
think I ever appreciated as much as I do now. And I’m gonna find Liz. I
already decided. If I get outta here, I’m gonna find her and help her raise that
kid she’s got and be the kind of man every woman wants and dedicate
everything. I’m done being a fuck-up piece of shit. I don’t care how hard it is,
and it’s gonna be damn hard, but I’m gonna get a real job and work hard and
savor the good times when they come and live together with Liz and her boy
with that Pikachu on our mantle and… I can’t do a thing. Keep forgetting,
when the anesthesia’s working. Can’t walk. Can’t even feed myself.
For twenty minutes Mr. Stark wiped away his son’s tears and his own.
Solemn nurses performed tests at the erasure points of David’s limbs, injecting
antibiotics, inspecting stitches. It is the natural proclivity of the human heart
to wish to comfort when another is in pain, but the distance from sincerity of
saying anything along the lines of “everything is going to be alright” was too
stupendous for it to even really be considered.
Your narrator as well finds it quite impossible to fully grasp what it must
have been like. Thirty-four years old and in all common respects a failure –
for such punishment to ensue seems beyond the possibility of nature, seems
proof of the existence of a vindictive God and proof as well against any sort of
mercy or love, to render so wretched the life of a boy who gave his best
Pikachu to a girl who’d lost her mother. Chained to the fact of his matters so
absolutely, as if the ghost limbs extending from his four pitiful nubs of sawed
bone had been wrapped and shackled to the horrific inescapability of his new
reality, there is no way David would have been able to wedge beneath the pain
the proposed self-indulgent comfort of your ever-the-writer narrator: that at
least and for however ephemerally, David would be living in a depth of human
suffering rarely witnessed upon the Earth, glimmering insight upon torture
beyond that which can be self-inflicted by the mental masochist. No – one
must admit – at a certain point, truth and discovery is no longer worth misery.
At the totality of it, at the absolute zero of things being alright, even the most
ardent and diligent denier of comfort will scream for the glaring, ineluctable
persistence of stolid fact to subside, even if he or she must suffer the
humiliation of begging for the proverbial wool to be pulled back over his or
It may be that for that absolute zero to occur even the possibility of
communicating the pain of it must be lost, for communication is a great human
comfort – and one not to be shamed by described denier of such – and a great
human virtue is understanding the nobility of the sacrifice for communication
of truth and therefore it would be that the maximum of misery would be
irretrievable, a piece of data beyond the event horizon, and to write about it
would be at best speculation and at worst blind posturing, for it is foolish to
deny that the brain has within it self-protective mechanisms that prevent us
from reaching a finality of despair beyond the liberation of suicide or the reach
of expression. One should not be ashamed that the mind protects from such
things or that one naturally seeks at a certain and individual threshold of
anguish a point at which comfort is sought – we are, after all, human beings,
“I don’t want to look, dad.”
“Don’t,” he kissed my forehead and I felt tears fall into my hair. “Just
keep still, David.”
There was nobody else in the room and it was very late. I opened my
eyes just to be sure I could. They were sticky with old tears. I didn’t want to
make him sadder, but she was the elephant in the room and we could both feel
her void. “I miss mom,” I said, shutting my eyes again.
Dad gave a big sob and I felt his hand squeeze on my ribs.
“Remember…” he began, thinking. “Remember when we went to that ball
tournament out in Somerset, an’ ‘ere was that river down the hill from the
fields an’ yinz were gettin’ crushed by that Philly team so your mom went to
Wal-Mart an’ bought some tubes, an’when it was over yinz felt so bad ya came
over an’ we said we got ya swimming trunks so change outta your ball pants,
we’re goin’floatin’, an’we floated all the way back to town an’ your mom was
waitin’there with ice cream for you boys?”
“Yeah,” I said, eyes clenched shut to see the green river and the green
hills and the blue sky. “When you moved me up so me and Chad were on the
same team. That river was so clear you could see the catfish under your feet.
And there was that rope swing.”
“Chad jus’‘bout broke his neck on that thing when he slipped. Fell
right onta the tubes, o’erwise he’d a hit nuttin’ but rock… You boys were good
“We weren’t that good. That Philly team hit about a dozen homers off of
Chad and I couldn’t get on base to save my life.”
“For a couple a Yeersha boys with no real coachin’ on bad teams, yinz
were real good. Fish can only get so big in a small pond.”
In an environmental sense, David Stark was about as perfect as a human
being could be. Never had anything built, never caused much forest to be cut
down, never ate that much, never reproduced, never started a company, never
drove very far, never got on a plane – if the whole world was David Stark,
nature could breathe a sigh of relief. Whenever he caught fish, he threw them
back. He didn’t hunt. Was essentially a vegan without knowing it – his diet
mainly consisted of junk food and Ramen noodles. His carbon footprint was
about as small as his socio-economic one.
They fell asleep in the recovery room together. A good cry makes one
sleep like a baby and they’d had plenty. Jodie’s 80 year old mother, Beth, had
come in. The old woman meant to scold her grandson, but when she saw
David, all she could do was put her hand over her mouth and weep. Same
with David’s cousin, Missy. David Sr.’s brother, Jeff, came in too. He helped
“Boy oh boy,” he said, grimacing, when he came in. He hugged both of
them. “Well, bud, I guess I’ll see what me an’ Rick can rig up for ya at the
shop. Turn ya into a cyborg like Darth Vader in ‘em Star Wars movies.”
David laughed, half purely out of appreciation that Jeff hadn’t just teared
up. “That’d be nice.”
“There’s gotta be somethin’, bud. We’ll find a way. Keep keepin’ on,
The doctors and nurses were in and out constantly. Sometimes good
news – “everything seems stable for now” – sometimes not – “we’re seeing
trace signs of infection still in vital areas – hopefully the antibiotics can take
care of that but…”
David woke frequently. Each of his dreams ending with a milliontoothed monster wrapping its mouth around an arm or a leg and biting down.
He’d wake in a cold sweat, and for a fraction of a second feel the
depressurizing relief of realizing he was in bed under a clean white sheet, and
when the nightmare tension loosened and dissipated it would flow past his
stitches and sutures and flow out into the recovery room like steam and he
would remember and he would try to summon the ghost of a hand to wipe his
sweaty brow but there was nothing and in the quiet recovery room, sounds
only of the steadily beating monitors and his father’s light snoring, he would
stare up at the bleached dark ceiling and wait for some divine sense of a wider
awakening, something to tell him that, though no one else could know it, yes,
things will be alright. But it never came.
They sat me up for breakfast. Dad held a bottle of water with a straw in it.
A nurse fed me a banana. I didn’t want to eat but after chewing on it, the first
piece of fruit I’d probably had in a month, I was hungrier than I’d ever been.
She fed me a peanut butter and sea salt protein bar and then another banana
when I asked and some yogurt, and she just sat there beside me watching so
warmly, so intently, and I really just wanted her to not be so sweet. If she
could just look at me with disgust and mutter “pathetic” under her breath with
each bite she fed me, that would be nice. Dad looked so hopeful when he saw
me eating and I wondered what he was hopeful for. To do this for me every
damn meal until he died or I died? To have a dumb talking vegetable in his
house eating his food?
You know what makes it all even worse? No matter how shitty things are
and no matter how I know that it’s not going to get any better, it can’t, and how
awful and worthless my life is doomed to be, I don’t want to die. Stuck. Stuck
living like this, or stuck dying at the end of the worst thing I ever heard of to
happen to one person. Damnit, Dad, why you gotta be so nice? Why do you
need to make it so I know it would crush you if I gave up and that you’d
sacrifice everything you can to make things as good as you can for me if I keep
living? Just wheel me away in the woods somewhere and leave, go live your
life and don’t think about what happens to me.
Chad Stark was not considered an escape risk and only had another three
months to serve of his five year sentence for repeated car-theft and D.U.I
arrests before he’d be released, so he was allowed one hour to commune with
his brother before being whisked back to prison, in hand and ankle cuffs and
under the supervision of two guards. They told him that David was in lifethreatening condition. He didn’t know what to expect.
Chad presently was the reigning MVP of the prison baseball league, three
years consecutive. The joint was treating him well. He was in the best shape
of his life, completely clean for the longest amount of time since he was
eleven years old, and he had games to look forward to every weekend. At
thirty-six, Chad was throwing 84 mph heat and a dirty curve and felt better
about the future than he had since he’d gotten locked up and fired from his job
as a life insurance salesman for swiping a Rolex off a desk leaving an
appointment. Unlike David, Chad had grown ambition since becoming an
adult. He’d met some guys in prison, studied the game, made some contacts,
pleaded his case with some administrators, spoke with passion and sincerity
not unpracticed to coaches, and it looked like he was going to get a job as a
pitching coach at a local community college after he was released. They were
going to pay him shit money due to his priors and lack of bargaining power,
but it was a chance. He could see it – a few years developing pitchers, get
promoted to assistant head coach, take over a struggling team at another
school, move up the ranks over the years until he was coaching real live bigtime college baseball and pulling in six-figures. Pretty impressive for a
multiple convict with a G.E.D. he earned in the tank.
But when he shuffled in to David’s room with his brother under the sheets
and his poor old dad in the chair, Chad went blank. He’d seen David six
months prior at a prison visit, but now… god, he was nothing. And he was so
pale, so drained. The kid gave him the same grin he always had, that grin that
a little brother gives when he’s in on something with his older brother and the
parents don’t know. And then his mouth broke and fell back to neutral and
Chad shuffled closer. One of the guards grabbed his cuffs and held him back.
“Are you kidding me?” Chad growled. The other C.O., the senior of the
two, indicated that it was fine. The guard let go and Chad inched forward.
“How’s it going?” David asked weakly.
“Not bad. Hey, dad.” David Sr. hugged his oldest son, Chad’s arms
shackled between them. He looked over his father’s shoulder at his brother’s
blank smile, met his stare. He’d always had eyes that rendered him instantly
trustworthy, blue and sincere, wide and gently passive, but now they were
different, and Chad didn’t know exactly what it was. For a moment, David
held his smile, but then, again, it faltered, and Chad felt his father sob against
him, and he saw his brother fight to keep his lip from trembling, and his
excitement to tell them about his aspirations and his plans to achieve them was
dashed against the cold outline of the inescapably harsh reality that was rising
up like an incomprehensible monolith in front of him. His little brother… just
lying there, and he could do nothing else. And his dad, standing with shaking
hands supporting him against the back of his chair beside David’s bed. It hit
him, the obvious but difficult to understand, that David would never get better.
Only 34 years old, and now he was this hopeless pitiful thing before Chad and
the two guards, both of them silently trying not to stare at the motionless nubs,
exquisitely cleaned by the diligent nurses.
“So…” Chad began, trying to think of what to say. “You doin’, ya know,
you doin’ alright?”
David stolidly nodded, glancing to his right, and Chad knew that he was
just putting on a brave face for their father. “I think so.”
“That’s good,” Chad replied. Awkward moment of silence. “I, um, I got a
job lined up,” he continued, not knowing what else to say. “Pitching coach
over at Northmoore Community College.” Both David’s blinked, stirred by
the sudden strangeness of a topic not related to the pain of the immediate or
the looming prospective surrounding them.
“Well, Chad, hell, that’s great!” his dad proclaimed shakily, walking over to
hug him again.
“That’s awesome,” David told his brother. “Congrats, bud.”
“Thanks,” Chad responded, now feeling even more awkward. It felt so
disingenuous, to turn the conversation to himself. He didn’t mean to; he just
wanted to say something, fearing that if he didn’t, nobody would for a long
time. But now it felt like bragging. There was an unspoken awareness,
agreement, lingering in the room that Chad was beginning to become attuned
to – that David Jr.’s life was over, and David Sr.’s life must be devoted to
taking care of his youngest boy, to whom he felt absolutely responsible for
this. By stating his optimistic opportunity, Chad had removed himself from
responsibility, he inarticulately understood, he might as well have said,
“David, I’ve got a life now, and I can’t be spending it pushing you around and
The callousness of his unintentional implication dawned on him, and he felt
tears form in his own prison-hardened gaze. “David, if you ever need
anything,” he began, seeking to correct himself, in the slow and wellpronounced tone that he only took when he was dead serious, “I want you to
know I’m here for you. And once I get out, really, if you need anything…” he
trailed off, trying to imagine what he could possibly do. Feed his grown little
brother spoonfuls of food? Carry him around the racetracks in one of those
back-holsters designed for children? The bizarre indignity of David’s future
unfurled before him hopelessly.
“Thanks, bud,” David replied amiably. After a few moments of forced
small talk David Sr. excused himself to go to the bathroom. When the door
shut behind him, David looked at the guards standing behind his brother.
“Think we could get a minute?” he asked them. They looked at each other,
then looked at Chad, and then the older guard gave another short nod.
“Five minutes,” he told them. “We’ll be right outside.”
“Thank you,” David said. Chad was quite surprised they agreed. He
figured they must’ve thought there wasn’t much he could do to David at this
point, and nothing really in the room to steal. He shuffled closer to his inert
brother. David’s face became a grimace. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t do
anything. I mean, it just… so fast, gone, everything,” he was breaking down,
“mom, now this, and I don’t know, I mean, dad…” he finished, looking at
Chad desperately. And Chad had no answers, staring blankly at his little
brother’s face, searching for a silver lining, searching for an undeniable
promise, but seeing nothing but four useless nubs. What could he do? Chad
searched for a reassurance, as he had so many times before, when David Sr.’s
oldest brother, for whom he was named, had killed himself, when the pair had
been caught drinking at the mud pit as young teenagers by police, when they
had crashed a stolen car while high on a chalky combination of God-knowswhat, when David couldn’t get a job and was scared to move back home,
when Jodie had first gotten sick, when it came back, when finally it looked
like it was over for her, and then again, but now… What could he say?
“Do you want to… you know, make it?”
David gave the semblance of a shrug. “I don’t know if dad could take it if I
didn’t. But I don’t want him having to feed me and move me and…
everything, change me, if I do.” He looked down at the white blanket, falling
flat against the bed at the rounded ends of his thighs. “Is there anything…
that’s not either of those?”
Chad thought hard, and only one option was presenting itself. “What if
you… you just hang on and let dad take care of you for the next 86 days, and
then when I get out, I’ll move in with you to help? That way, I can take care
of you during the mornings while dad goes and paints, and then he’ll be back
by the afternoon when I need to drive out to Northmoore.” He considered a
moment. “And I could even bring you, come spring and summer, if you
wanted, you could come and watch practice! Back at the baseball fields,
David, it’d be… it’d be good.”
David smiled appreciatively. “It all just sounds awful.”
“Look,” Chad began, sternly now, “I know you’re worried about being a
burden, I know that’s tough for a man to take, but it’s not a burden at all, not if
you’re still fighting, still livin’.”
“It’s not… well, it is that some…” David shook his head sharply, tears
forming and unable to wipe them. “I mean, the best thing about living was
that no one had to know about it. You could just have your secret little days,
drive around the old hills where you grew up, go out drinking at some bar you
never knew before, get high and walk in the rain…”
“We can still do all of that!” Chad argued. “Alright, you can’t do it alone,
but we can do it! And, I mean, shit, brother, you got to do something…” He
searched an emptiness for something to drive David onward. “You could
write a book! You were creative like that when we were little. You know, say
it aloud and I’ll write it for you!”
David was taken aback. “Why?”
“Because, then if you can get through this, you could inspire all the
other…” we waved his shackled hands towards David’s limbless body.
“Nubs?” David finished. They both burst out laughing.
At that moment the door opened, David Sr. leading the two guards. The
boys’ father’s mustache furled upwards over his smile to see the pair laughing.
They talked about good times and Jodie and Chad’s new job for the rest of his
stay. And when he left, flanked through the hospital by the husky guards, the
ghost-edges of David’s arms and legs began to hurt again.
When Chad and David were just boys, maybe ten and eight, yes, because it
was right after Liz’s mom died, the family took a trip to the Little League
World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. They got there good and early to
have a decent spot. David Sr. and Jodie hauled lawn chairs up to the top of the
hill overlooking the field and the boys carried their gloves and a couple balls.
While they waited for the game to start, watching the kids warm up from
Georgia and Japan, both equally impossibly far for a poor family of Yeersha
homebodies, they all played catch.
First it was just the boys, chucking the ball around with whippy
enthusiasm. Then their dad joined in, with his smooth long throws and
effortless catches. And finally, amidst casual pestering from her sons and her
amused husband, Jodie joined in as well. Chad handed over his glove for her
to borrow. She was a tiny woman and already he was surpassing her in height,
but the glove fit well. She awkwardly but good-naturedly threw the ball back
and forth with her Davids, both returning throws with marked gentleness.
After a few minutes, Jodie had gained some confidence, and after another
lob from her husband, she threw the ball to her son and said, “Come on,
David. I ain’t no china-doll. Give me a real throw.” He gave her a curt nod,
wound up like a pitcher, and chucked the baseball to his mother as hard as he
could manage with his spindly little body. The ball glanced off the top of her
mitt and hit Jodie right in the mouth. She bit her other hand to muffle a cry of
pain, blood dripping down her lip as David looked on in horror. Chad too had
a look of shock. Their father, knowing that the ball had really only travelled
about 30 miles per hour, stifled his laughter and helped his wife down the hill
to get some ice. The two boys stared at each other, tears welling in little
“Maybe they’ll get me a new glove now,” Chad remarked, looking at his
“Think mom’ll be ok?” David asked. Chad shrugged, watching their
parents meander down the hill through the growing crowd towards first-aid.
A few minutes later, coinciding with the start of the game, they came back
up to their sons, an ice-pack held to Jodie’s mouth, and David Sr. sporting a
bemused grin. “Ya see, boys,” he instructed them, “This is why ya don’t ever
get too cocky.” Jodie pinched his boney side, eliciting an ‘ouch!’ And then
they all sat together and watched the game and the afternoon sun roll through a
spectacular blue sky over the pretty little town and endless hills stretching over
the ballfields forever.
That was what David thought about, looking out the window as broken
stitches were fixed where his left arm used to be and he was examined for
I just realized… Liz doesn’t think I remembered. Or if she does, she thinks
I’m a mean heartless prick who doesn’t know a beautiful thing when he sees it.
Shit, maybe I don’t, if I didn’t think it was worth more than anything right then
and there. No use crying over spilled milk, I suppose… though I suppose
there’s not much I can do of any use at all anyway so maybe I should just cry
over it, thinking about what could’ve been if I wasn’t such a dumbass with the
willpower of a leaf in the wind. I gotta let her know. I gotta let that woman
know that… that it meant so much to me, to see that. After all these years,
never dreaming of it, never expecting it. But… I couldn’t burden her. I
couldn’t have dad find her in the yellow pages and take me there, put me on
the front porch, knock the door for me and run away like a damn kid playing
ding-dong-ditch, and when she answers just say, “Hey, remember me? Well,
I’d finally like to see how this can work out, if you don’t mind having someone
new to take care of and change – maybe you’ll complain a little, unlike these
damn nurses in here, acting like it’s no big deal at all to be scraping shit out
my skinny ass.” No. I’ve got to let her know, but I don’t want her to see me
When David was 27, he’d woken early and suddenly from a deep, heroininduced slumber. It was soon after he’d moved back home, to the little cabin
up the hill from his parents, soon after Jodie had first gotten sick. He’d been
having a dream that he remembered the rest of his life – a dream that takes us
back further into his life, into his deep childhood.
When he was five years old – and David can’t remember the context
exactly but thinks it has something to do with Chad first joining the Cub
Scouts – a short term endeavor – he was part of a game of hide-and-seek in the
woods. There were supposed to be boundaries but somehow he’d missed
them and wound up all alone, hiding between a fallen tree and a steep little
muddy embankment. For maybe a half-hour he just sat there, watching the hot
July sky thicken, feeling the strange stillness of an approaching thunderstorm.
Suddenly thunder cracked the silence of the woods and a heavy rain began to
fall and David got up and began running back in what he thought was the way
he’d came, but he was off. He swung far wide of the others, searching and
shouting for him, and wound up emerging, to his complete befuddlement,
behind his own home, not realizing how close the scout camp was. His
mother, just then getting a call from the scoutmaster saying David was
missing, saw him step into the back yard and ran out to hug and scold him.
Back then, he’d thought he must be dreaming – this couldn’t be his real house,
couldn’t be his real mother, just some bizarre magic of the woods.
Back to the dream at 27. In it, he was back at his hiding spot, between the
rotting log and the muddy embankment, and the clouds began to congeal
ahead through the thick foliage, and lightning exploded the branches above
him. He was looking up at a tremendous straining eyeball, peering into the
forest, and he scooted further down, trying to press himself into the log in fear.
And then the eyeball turned away, and he heard a voice say, “You’re all alone
out here now.” He stood and looked around, at a forest glowing with neon
wildflowers and golden rain falling from the dark sky. He felt very light, and
when he leaped into the air the wind took him soaring over the pines, dropping
him at the foot of a tree the size of a skyscraper, which he began to dutifully
climb. At the top, he looked out over the endless luminescent forest and the
wind took him again, back to the hiding spot, and this time he began running
home, his body small and five years old again, and when he saw his home
through the trees, his mother was standing in the yard, crying, staring at him
through the woods. He’d slowly approached her, and from his pocket pulled
out that Pikachu he’d given Liz Harlow 19 years before. She asked him where
he’d gotten it, and, suddenly remembering, told her he’d found it atop the
giant tree. She smiled at him, but he could see through her, and saw that her
insides were turning black and flaky as ashes, and the wind came again and
she dissolved and blew away, along with the house, the Pikachu falling to the
wet grass, and he picked it up and put it back in his pocket and tried to fly
again but couldn’t remember how, and then he looked up, and that giant
eyeball was staring right at him.
When he woke from the dream the first hints of pre-dawn light were giving
gray hues to the darkness outside the cabin window. David got out of bed –
burnished spoon clinking on the floor when it fell from his blanket – and put
on his boots and jacket. He went outside, the cool springtime night crisp
against his skin. David walked down the hill towards his parent’s home, his
home, and then walked into the woods, re-tracing those steps from so long
ago, steps he hadn’t taken since.
It wasn’t far, perhaps a ten-minute walk through the woods, and as the sky
to the east began to lighten along the hillside he found it. The log half-gone
and moss-covered, the embankment looking about the same. With a curious
solemnity David sat down in the soggy earth, remembering the day and
remembering the dream and marveling at the fact of something so deep in his
own past still existing so close, and yet he’d forgotten about it until that night,
and had never gone back until then. He thought about his mom and about Liz
Harlow and wished he had another best Pikachu to give and that he was eight
years old again so it could mean as much. Then he got up to see if he could
find the little clearing of the scout camp where the game of hide-and-seek had
started. It wasn’t hard, as the dawn broke gloriously through the dewy trees.
A meadow clearing, the grass shimmering emerald, and David felt very light
again and he jumped when the cool wind came softly through the trees, and
for a second he could’ve sworn he broke apart into a billion drops of water and
was carried over the meadow and further on into the forest. But then he
turned, and walked back, and found his home right where he’d left it, and went
back up the hill to his cabin, and went back to sleep.
That was what David was thinking about in the pre-dawn hours before the
doctor announced that there was more necrosis, looking past his lightly
snoring father out the window at the parking lot and the fields beyond,
wondering why he didn’t just keep walking the forest forever, until home
appeared again like magic through the rain.
David Sr. listened in horror that morning as the doctor explained that traces
of further infection were being detected in what was left of David’s body.
Still… all this and still it wasn’t over. They were going to try a very old but
tested type of treatment called maggot therapy, which the doctor explained
carefully to the red-eyed father and his dead-eyed son. The lab-raised,
sterilized maggots would eat the dead and infected tissue and blood vessels,
preventing them from spreading, while also releasing chemicals that can help
destroy the infection.
In less than an hour David was sedated and wheeled away and David Sr.
was sitting in the hospital room where he’d spent most of the past week,
watching his son wake and cry and eat and stare out the window and
sometimes, sometimes when they’d talk and reminisce, he’d see his boy smile
again like he always used to. He’d been a God-fearing man his whole life but
he just couldn’t understand the seeming malice as he gazed outside – sure, his
son wasn’t exactly a model citizen but he’d never hurt anybody on purpose.
Yet it seemed like some force was determined to see him dead, to see him dead
What is it that a man wants for his child? Happiness? Fulfillment? Some
kind of worldly success? When a person looks upon the world, perhaps in one
of those few warm days of winter, when the sun shines pale and bright and the
grass is dead and the trees barren, in some pure corner of the world where
homes are few and the hills stretch out beyond the horizon, it can become
wordlessly apparent just how tremendous it all is, just how fleeting we are.
Our bodies and minds just the ephemeral state of a collection of atoms that
have existed for billions of years and will go on for ever after when what we
are is long gone. That the Earth would continue to spin if all the homes and
families in them were no longer and crumbled away; the grass will be green
again without us, and the sun shine hot orange when summer comes again; the
trees would still grow tall, crash down after eons or audience-less storms, and
in their place new ones grow; and long after the rumble of our machines and
the chatter of our voices have vanished away, more unassuming creatures will
still paw through the night and look up at the moon with something perhaps
And then, when a man looks back at his child, and knows the same truths
hold for them as well, what can he want? One wonders if perhaps to want
anything at all beyond living itself is some habit taught, a neurotic addiction
cultivated by the larger powers of humanity, but still among the smallest of
nature; an anxiety fueled by the unnecessary need to answer contrived
questions of purpose and existence – why do you deserve to live? Because
despite all of our mercurial and infinitesimal purposes, somehow love still
manages to exist. And perhaps it still will when we’re gone, perhaps it did
before us, perhaps there is some vibrato emotion deeper than we can really
explain, more nuanced than the best French phrase could capture, a sidereal
amour flowing through the whole of the universe. And when a father looks at
his child, perhaps all he can want is what already is – that they get to be a part
of it, part of this thing that at times seems vaguely magical, sometimes
flooringly so, and sometimes seems so harsh and brutal and painful as to
render even the strongest of us broken and begging. Perhaps he can want
nothing, for the pale sun has already looked upon his child’s face and shone a
The last time David Sr. had to take his son to the hospital for anything not
related to drugs, he was 15 years old. The family had driven across the county
to Hublersburg, where there was a Fourth of July party at Jodie’s brother-inlaw’s camp. The way the cards fell, David was in that awkward middle-range
between the other groups of young people – a number of boys and girls in
their late teens and early twenties, and some younger cousins between four
and twelve. As Jodie and David Sr. hung out with the other adults around the
cabin, eating pulled pork and watermelon, Chad and David went off to play
around the woods with the others. Chad gravitated towards the older ones, up
on the hill a bit, where booze was passed around and they took turns ripping a
dirt bike through a bumpy field. David however decided on that day to hang
out with the younger kids for a while, down in a little thicket, the whir of the
dirt bike and the shrieks of the girls sounding high up and far away. One of
the kids had brought in a small drawstring pouch his collection of Pokémon
toys. That was me, the one telling you this story.
They all took the figures and played out a camping adventure, and David
blinked when a disagreement of the narrative arose – one of the younger
children protested when the oldest other than David introduced a villainous
character: “I don’t want there to be a bad guy!” the younger argued; “There’s
always a bad guy,” the older one rebutted.
At one point David Sr. and his oldest brother Chad had walked across the
way to another field to set up the fireworks. They walked by the thicket and
noticed David crouched beside a mud puddle with his younger cousins,
playing with the toys with an involved contentment. His father stared. He
knew what his sons were up to at that point in their lives. Knew that they
drank, knew that they did some other softer drugs, though he wasn’t aware
that Chad had taken to crushing painkillers and snorting them, something he
would soon show his brother. But there was David, and he might as well have
been eight years old again, as sweet and innocent as his eyes always looked.
Sometime while the men were setting up the fireworks, David heard a sharp
sound rattle about the thicket directly above. Then again, the sound of
something hard thwacking against the wood. Then a small stone lasered into
the puddle amidst the kids, and he looked up. A group of the older boys –
Chad not among them – were standing up on the hill, clearly drunk and
chucking rocks down, laughing when they got close. Another one whished
through the foliage and struck one of the kids in the arm. He began to cry
more than the pain alone – the stones were only about the diameter of dimes –
would merit, but he was scared, they all were, and disturbed to have their fun
interrupted in such a way, their illusion broken.
As a few more stones cut through the thicket and the boys laughed
obnoxiously above, David stood with a look of pure fury, something perhaps
never seen before or after in his face. He began sprinting up the hill with the
athleticism of a boy fresh off his first and best season of high school baseball.
The brave twelve year old followed, though quickly was far behind. The boys
above, though seeing him with blurred vision, could tell that he was in an
unexpected blind rage, something they never realized was even in him. One
of them took aim with the largest of his stones – still only quarter-sized, but
significantly larger than the others. He threw it, hard, and somehow it struck
David right between the eyes. His eyes rolled back and he stumbled, fell
sideways and lay still. The twelve year old came up behind as the older boys
looked at each other with stupid and alarmed drunkenness and ran off. David
was out cold and bleeding from his head, which had struck a rock jutting out
from the slope when he’d fallen. The younger boy sprinted to the camp and
found his father, Jeff, and led him back to David. Jeff, Jodie, and David Sr.
took him to the hospital where a few stitches were put into his head just above
his right ear.
David either couldn’t tell through the evening shadows who was throwing
the rocks or simply didn’t want to say. Nothing more came of it. When he
was taken away, the younger kids went up and played in the safety of the camp
under the self-conscious inducing gaze of their parents and relatives. The
older kids came down from the hill. A few – likely guilty – drove off
immediately, before David Sr. got back and told them all that he was very
disappointed in them or Jodie could tirade about them. He pulled Chad aside
and asked his booze-scented son if he was there, watching them throw stones
at kids, anger blowing out from beneath that broomy mustache. Chad told him
with honest sincerity that he had not, that he never would, that he was just up
on the hill riding. David Sr. sighed. His youngest was alright – just a minor
concussion, and an awful patch of shaved head where the stitches had been
placed. Let bygones be bygones, he figured.
It’s been ten days now, and Dad still stays every night. I wish he just didn’t
care, I really do. Never liked feeling like people’s happiness depended on me.
Gets me antsy.
There’s not much getting used to this. It’s not like I can rehab or
something. Dad got real heated the other day, asking the doctor if they were
sure they needed to take as much as they did. Took him a while to be
convinced, he was so upset. They told him I’d be dead by now for sure if
they’d left any of it. But I know he was just upset because he saw me crying
again, and knew I was thinking how helpless I am now, how I can’t even just
walk around the woods or move around the porch for different views as I
This is the longest I’ve been clean in years. Guess that’s the bright side –
ha. Not like I even have a place to inject anymore if I wanted to. You know, it
just… as much as I hated doing it, that weird filthiness of sticking a needle
into your vein with some murky drug in it, it just got to be so hard to find any
other way that things felt good still. I’d wake up some mornings, walk here
and there, but the days just stretched so damn long and I always felt like I
outta be doing something with my time but all I wanted to do was just wander
around and disappear. Then I’d think about mom and dad and everyone, think
how they wanted better for me, even if I didn’t really want better for myself,
and I’d feel so guilty and depressed that heroin was the only thing that made it
feel alright again, make it so I could forget and just become part of some
world that was really nice, where I was secret and just walking through and no
one cared what I did.
It’s so damn hard to picture never doing that again. Never just going out
without really thinking about where I am or where I’m going, finding other
people out there like I’d never even expect it, falling in love for just a night,
before it got to be something you needed to always be planning for.
But that one girl, but Liz, hell, twenty-five years between and it couldn’t
have been a prettier thing. A real glimmer of gold in an ocean of shit. I
suppose it must be really worth it for some things. A diamond isn’t made over
night, after all. That’s what hurts the most, even more that where my arms and
legs used to be. What hurts the most is knowing that I could’ve had so many
years with that girl and if that thing with the Pikachu is any indication it
would have led to some kind of real love that could stretch on like an endless
river through all the days and nights, and maybe be better than anything I
could ever picture, but that too got cut away. Cut away to pieces. Because
I’m not going to burden her like that – not going to go to her like this. But I
gotta do something, something to let her know. Maybe Chad was onto
Liz Harlow found out about what happened to David while at Burger King,
treating her son to their agreed-upon weekly fast-food meal. Beth, Jodie’s
mother, was there, crying hysterically as she bit into a double-whopper. Liz
and her boy tried not to stare at the round red-faced old woman, chewing and
weeping. Another elderly woman came into the joint and noticed Beth, a
friend, and asked her what on earth was going on. So Beth told her.
“My gran’baby David!” she wailed. “He got all ‘fected, ‘fected from takin’
‘eroin! Just saw ‘im at the ‘ospital over in Hublersburg… and they… they had
to amp-ya-tate ‘im. Amp-ya-tate ‘is arms and ‘is legs, all of ‘em.”
Her friend took a seat and put her boney old arms around her. Now
Yeersha is not a big place and there weren’t many Davids in the area, so Liz
had a feeling she knew who was being discussed, and she knew it for sure a
few moments later when Beth cried out again, “First Jodie and now my
gran’baby!” Liz felt as if she were sinking. Her son looked at her in
between fries and glances at Beth and her old friend to say, “She must be
really sad. I hope she’s ok.” She gave her son a weak smile and mouthed ‘me
She took her kid back to their little upstairs apartment in an old brick
building on Yeersha’s single street with a traffic light. It was a Saturday, and
her son went next door to play with a friend. Eight years old, she thought.
The same age they had been when her mother had died, and her son too had
that same unassuming sweetness, that same temperament full of empathy
before it need be compromised by goals or self-consciousness. The kind of
kid who never worries if he’s growing up fast enough. She sat down at the
kitchen table and wondered how much of that kid was still in David, lying
helpless in a sterile white bed.
“Mr. Stark,” the doctor began, with a graven look. “We’ve… the scans
turned up infection in his internal organs. Around his heart. It’s… well, as I
said before, it was an advanced case, and there’s nothing more we can do.”
David, told already, stared blankly at the ceiling above, trying to let his mind
float away so he wouldn’t have to listen to his dad trying to process the news.
“It’s… in ‘is heart?” David Sr. choked out. “So… he’s gonna…” he looked
at the doctor for confirmation, and he nodded to him with grim seriousness.
“I’m so sorry.”
David Sr. shook his head, tears falling into his mustache. “There’s gotta be
sumthin’! Ain’t no more medicine to take? No shots or nothin’?” Again, the
doctor shook his head. David Sr. looked at his son. Still staring at the ceiling
with his mouth clenched tight. “David, don’t you give up now, ya hear? Long
as you keep breathin’ we ain’t given up. We’ll get through, and get ya’ on
back home.” He put his hand on his son’s chest. David looked up at him. “Ya
I decided what I want to do. I’m going to write a story for them, for Liz
and her kid. They can read it together, just like mom used to do with me and
Chad when we were real little. They wouldn’t let him out again. Said he’d
already had his deathbed visit. It really didn’t feel like it then though. I got
my little cousin, the college one who knows how to write it just like I say, he’s
gonna do it for me.
I thought about asking dad, but it just didn’t feel right. Because the whole
thing, he doesn’t even know about it, the Pikachu when we were eight years
old or just last year when mom died, and it seems sort of awful that he doesn’t,
and so I don’t want to go telling him now. It’s like there’s a whole secret world
inside a person, and you keep it in long enough, keep it hidden from someone
you love, someone who raised you, and then if you let them in on it it’s like
they never really knew you all the way, maybe. And I just don’t want that.
Especially now that I don’t have much longer. But maybe… maybe there’s
long enough… Either way, I don’t think he even knows how to write.
So I’ve been thinking of this whole story in my head to tell, and I think I’ve
got it worked out for the most, and it feels good having something to do, some
reason to keep pushing on, even though I know when it’s over I won’t, but
maybe when it’s over and I get it out, some story that’s everything I have to
give, just like when I was eight years old, the best thing I can give to someone
else, maybe then it won’t be so scary.
“So you think this will… make it easier?” I asked David when he told me
his idea. It was just us in the room. He’d convinced his father to go home and
get some sleep in a real bed – he wouldn’t slip away without him.
“It won’t change much either way, but it’s the one thing I really want to
“Chad suggested it, huh?”
David grinned. “I didn’t expect it either. But it really is about the only
thing I’ve got.”
“We could go find her. We could go find her now.”
“No… I don’t want to make her part of this fuckin’shit. Don’t need to go
making her feel bad. I just want her to know that I… that it mattered.”
I nodded. “We could just write her a letter. Something direct, you know.
Or do both.”
“I think the story idea is better for this. I never said much to her our whole
lives except ‘hello’ and giving each other shy little grins.” He looked out the
window. “I know her as this tragic, beautiful girl that I gave the best thing I
had to, and she probably knows me as this poor boy who lost his mother too
and she got to give it back, so we both only know the pure goodness of the
other, really, and I don’t want to write her a letter trying to say who I am and
who I think she is because I think we both already know the good of each
other and that’s enough.” He looked back at me. “I think the story will let her
know that I loved what she did for me. And a letter seems sad if the sender’s
dead. A story doesn’t.”
“Alright. Well, I’m convinced.” I took out my laptop, preparing to type.
“Are you sure there’s nothing else after this?”
“Nothing else what?”
“Nothing else you want to do before you die?”
“Sure, there are things I guess. What’s it matter?”
“I don’t know… I think I’m just scared for you. It seems so far away but
now you’re just staring it in the face. I think I’d want to squeeze in as much as
I could to avoid looking at it directly.”
The room was so sterile and serene. He seemed to be as well, but there was
an intensity deep in there.
“I’m through looking away,” he said. The air hung heavy and dead still. I
opened a blank word document. “Alright,” he said, with the kind of tone
normally accompanied by a hand-clap. “Let’s get to it.”
When we were finished he told me what to do. Go get the Pikachu from his
cabin. Then, wait until he passed away and take the story and the toy to miss
Elizabeth Harlow, age 34, in Yeersha. And then, when I got the chance, thank
Chad for the idea.
It was such a lonely little toy, sitting there on the mantle. It was turned
away to face into the wall, as if at some point he’d found himself unable to
bear its smiling yellow face and what it represented, what he’d thrown away.
I didn’t have to wait long for the next step. Only four days, when David
Sr.’s sister, my grandmother, called. I heard my mom upstairs say, “Oh my
God, that’s awful… I suppose it’s probably best though. He’s in a better place
now.” I knew right then. It took her three hours to tell me outright. There
was something about David that made his death hard to stomach. A family
member we’d all written off, rarely talked about.
That evening I drove out to Yeersha, and what a lovely drive it was. Lush
September, with the pink sun falling over the mountains, winding around the
hillsides up to the little town. It could be so damn beautiful sometimes, it can
be hard to think about. I’m the kind of person who’s supposedly going to
make a name for himself, with big goals and ambition, someone who’s going
places. But when I drive out there, I wonder if there’s anywhere more worth
being. There’s a kind of mystical solitude in those hills, with the woods dark
green and every garden full of flowers in the tail-end of purple bloom. The
world is just as alive as you are, and it doesn’t care about what you’re doing
with your life.
I parked on the street at the address I’d found in the phone book. Knocked
on the door. A beer-gutted old man in a white tank top that didn’t quite cover
his belly-button answered the door with a questioning grunt.
“Um… Does Liz Harlow live here?” I asked. He grunted again and pointed
upstairs. I thanked him and went up.
Knocked on the door and a little boy with short brown hair and buck-teeth
answered. He gazed up at me with round green eyes and I smiled. Liz came
up behind him. She was lovely. Tall and slender with wispy blond hair and a
face with a serene prettiness that looked as if it were forever staring at a snowcapped mountain in the distance.
“Hello?” she said politely.
“Hi. This is for you.” I handed her a shoe box. Inside was the story – I’d
printed it out and shown David the finished version, illustrated by my little
sister, which pleased him immensely two days prior – and the Pikachu. She
took it and I went to leave as she removed the lid. Liz followed me out the
“What happened to him?” she asked. I struggled to find a place to start.
“No, I mean, I know… but did he…”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s gone.” She looked down at her feet and shut her
eyes. Then she thanked me and went back inside, and I went home.
David and his dad cried and talked to each other for his entire last day. The
doctors say there was hardly a silent moment between the two for fourteen
hours. And when they fell asleep, David Jr. just never woke up. But his dad
walked out of that hospital with some kind of glimmer. He wasn’t the broken
man he had been two weeks before when he’d seen his poor boy all cut to
pieces on that bed. Dale Earnhardt #3 hat high and proud on his head, he
walked out into the parking lot in the autumn morning and knew that his boys
“Pikachu in the Forest”
By David Stark Jr.
Pikachu grew up in a beautiful forest with all the other Pokemon. He
always had a lot of fun there, playing with his friends and exploring the
woods, but one day, all the Pokemon children were told to line up. They were
supposed to demonstrate their powers. Everyone’s parents were watching.
Pikachu could see his mom and dad up in a high tree branch gazing down with
smiles, but he was so nervous. They went down the line, shooting balls of fire
or water blasts or making miniature earthquakes, and Pikachu knew that he
was supposed to be able to make lightning. Before he even knew it, it was his
turn. He closed his eyes to focus, try as hard as he could to summon up the
power, but all he could think was, ‘why on earth would I want to make
lightning? I don’t like it and I don’t like thunder either.’ And he didn’t make
even a spark. They moved on down the line to the next, and more powers
were demonstrated, and Pikachu looked up at his parents, and they smiled at
him with pity, and he felt so ashamed he just wanted to run away.
And so that’s just what he did. Ran off to another part of the forest where
the regular animals lived like deer and snakes and birds because they also
didn’t have any powers. He lived out there on his own in a nest up in a
branch. He never wanted to make lightning anyway. Pikachu just wanted to
be able to run around the forest without anyone caring what he did.
One night out in the forest there was a terrible storm, and Pikachu was
afraid. He was always very scared of lightning and the sound that comes with
it. He covered himself up with leaves in his nest, but it wasn’t enough. He
went down the tree and ran to a cave. Inside it was dry and the thunder wasn’t
so loud and he couldn’t see the flashes of lightning. But he hadn’t been there
30 seconds before he heard a raspy voice coming from the back of the cave
say, “Bad storm tonight, ain’t it?” He jumped with fear, but couldn’t bring
himself to run outside. The stranger came walking up, and he was a mouse
too, just like Pikachu, but an ugly mouse, very ragged and old.
“Yes it is,” Pikachu stammered. “I’m sorry, I didn’t know anyone else
lived here. I just wanted out of the storm.”
“I don’t mind at all,” the old mouse said. “I was just about to take my
potion. It makes it so the thunder sounds like bluebirds singing and the
lightning seems as pretty and harmless as Christmas lights. Here.” And he
gave Pikachu some of the potion. The old mouse was right. The storm wasn’t
He returned to the cave the next time a storm came, and the next, and
before long he would go on days without storms. “It makes the cold feel
warm,” the old mouse would tell him on a frigid winter evening. “It makes
the hot feel cool,” the old mouse would tell him on a scorching summer
afternoon. And so Pikachu started going down into the dark cave more and
And then one day the old mouse told him that he was out of the potion, and
they had to go find more. So Pikachu followed him out of the cave and saw
the old mouse in the light for the first time. He was shocked – the old mouse,
though his coat was faded, was yellow, his cheeks still hinted of red, and his
tail, though torn and limp, had the same jagged shape as his own.
“You were a Pikachu!” he said in surprise. The old mouse nodded sadly.
“What happened to you?”
“The potion,” the old mouse replied.
“Can you make lightning?” Pikachu asked him.
The old mouse shook his head again. “Not anymore.” Pikachu walked
over to a nearby pond to look at his own reflection in the water. He looked
disheveled as well, his cheeks beginning to fade, though he was still young.
The potion seemed to make everything better but it made you worse. He told
the old mouse he wasn’t feeling well and returned to his nest.
Not long after that Pikachu saw his old friend Vulpix. He almost didn’t
recognize her, she was so grown up and beautiful. Instead of showing himself,
he stayed hidden in his nest. He didn’t want her to see how ragged and ugly
That night the biggest storm ever hit the forest, and the lightning seemed so
close it was like jagged hands reaching down to grab you and the thunder
sounded like it was exploding all around your head. Pikachu tried to be brave,
but he couldn’t do it and he ran down into the old mouse’s cave. He was just
about to take the potion, when he heard his old friend shouting from out in the
woods. He looked from the potion to the outside, the mouth of the cave
flashing with the constant bolts of terrible electricity, and he summoned all the
courage in his little body, and he left the old mouse in his cave and ran out into
Trees were struck and fell with cracking noises nearly as loud as the
thunder. Leaves slapped against his face, flying sideways through the woods
in the wind like wet bats, and the rain made it so hard to see. He heard his
friend shout for help again and saw her ahead through the storm. A tree had
fallen upon her back and she was stuck. Pikachu ran over.
Vulpix saw him and cried out, “Help, please!”
He tried to push against the tree, but he was just a little mouse and it didn’t
budge one bit. None of the other animals were out; they were all hiding away
from the storm and couldn’t hear them to come help. It was up to Pikachu.
He stood back a bit and closed his eyes to focus. He had to do it for her.
Summoning all his power, Pikachu’s cheeks began to glow, then his whole
body and he felt it come surging up. To both of their amazement, he shot a
bolt of electricity straight at the tree, breaking it into pieces, and his friend was
Almost instantly the storm began to pass. Vulpix stood up and looked at
Pikachu with a smile. “I’ve been looking all over for you,” she said. “I
wanted to tell you to come back to the rest of us. Why’d you run away?”
“Because I couldn’t make lightning,” Pikachu told her.
“I didn’t care about that,” she told him. “Lots of us didn’t care about that.
Besides, you just did it.”
He smiled back at her and nodded. “Yes, I guess I did.” And they began to
walk back towards their old home together. Pikachu snuck over to the pond
again to glance at himself. In the reflection he could see that his fur was
bright again, his cheeks scarlet.
When he got back to the other Pokemon in the forest his parents ran over to
hug him and tell him they missed him so much. They didn’t even ask if he
could make lightning yet, and he didn’t tell them. He lived in a little thicket
with Vulpix happily ever after, and he knew that if she ever needed him to be
able to make lightning, he’d be able to do it for her.